This will provide a little more information on our three days in Vilnius.
We had driven into Vilnius in a rented car (more on that in the next posting) and, after driving around the countryside for a few days, were somewhat surprised at how up to date and modern the city looked as we entered. The urban roads were relatively easy to drive, and our road map (not GPS) did a good job in leading us in the right direction. We knew we were heading towards the old city and the major road we were on became increasingly narrow as we realized we were near our right turn. When we got to Stikliai Street, we turned right (carefully, because it was a very narrow street – no car could pass us in the opposite direction), missing the sign that the street was going to wind up in a dead end. The street was fairly crowded with pedestrians, and until one of them waved us back, insinuating that there was no way we could continue, we didn’t realize that we were on the right road, yet the wrong road. This meant that we had to back down the road, backing onto the road we had previously driven, and take three right turns to get us where we needed to be.
The hotel itself, in old buildings, is very modern and very comfortable. It is located at the corner of Stickliai Street (glass worker street) and, interestingly, Jew Street, given its old name once again after Lithuania’s independence, showing how Vilnius does not shy away from its Jewish heritage. Our first restaurant was Adria, recommended by our guides. It was a fair walk from the hotel, away from what appeared the mainstream, and when we arrived at about 7:30, we were the only customers at the restaurant. A couple of comments – first, that this was our first entry into eating in this part of the world. This is not fast food country. It took almost an hour for our table (for 14) to be set, although we were expected, and another two hours for our food to show up on the table. I was quite upset, I must admit, since everyone was very tired, but I must say two things: first, the food was very good, and second, when we left, we discovered that the restaurant was by and large filled, and we were not as remotely located as we thought.
The second night, we decided to eat at the hotel, and this was an excellent choice – you can eat inside or outside in the cafe, which (because the street is a dead end street) is quiet and comfortable. The third night, I ate with a bunch of folks at a neighborhood Italian restaurant (our guide said the pizza was good), in part to save money, and I had what was clearly the worst meal of the trip. The remainder of our group ate at Bistro 18, just down the street from the hotel, and had a wonderful meal, explaining why this restaurant is Tripadvisors’ number one choice in the Vilnius.
There are three Jewish cemeteries in the city, and we were able to visit each of them, and particularly spend time in the cemetery where the Vilna Gaon has been buried. He has a rather plain mauseleum – you don’t go inside, but see if from the outside. Our guide told us that the Gaon’s wife was not buried with him, that this was not the practice with regard to major scholars at the time. I did not know that. He also told about a gentile who, in the face of terrible opposition at the time, converted to Judaism and was buried in the cemetery next to the Gaon. We saw a large number of interesting tombstones, in Hebrew and Russian (not Lithuanian), some with pictures, and some set as monuments to individuals murdered in various wars. An interesting cemetery – I wish we had more time.
We also were able to drive to Trokai, perhaps twenty kilometers from the city, a resort area on the lake, where we were able to eat lunch overlooking the water at an enormous outside restaurant catering to weekenders and tourists, and visit the old castle, where we happened upon a Renaissance festival (which we could have done without). But mostly, we went to visit the Karaite community.
Before World War II, there were at least two Karaite communities in the area, one in Trokai and one in Vilnius itself. It appears that the Vilnius community did not survive the war.
Karaites are, to some, a Jewish sect and to others not so. Their origin is somewhat in dispute, but they seem to stem from a group of Jews who, many hundreds of years ago, perhaps in Babylon, broke away from rabbinic Judaism, and based their belief system on biblical text alone. They were invited to Lithuania centuries ago, and remained. They have maintained their independence and denied that they were a Jewish sect, although their house of worship looks like a synagogue, they use the same biblical text as Jews and they use Hebrew as their holy tongue. Whether they are, or are not, Jews is probably not very important. They tried to convince the Nazis of the distinction between Jews and Karaites. They were not very successful, particularly in the opinion of the native groups operating separate from their German overseers.
More to come…….